A confession: we’ve learned firsthand the reasons for disaster rebuilding delays

I have to fess up.

Having pointed out in yesterday’s blog the unacceptably slow pace of rebuilding homes destroyed in the Texas hurricanes, it’s only right that I point out the delays that we ourselves have encountered in a disaster housing rebuilding project we are associated with.

We call the project Texas Grow Homes. It’s a program we worked on with the Texas Society of Architects, Chase Bank, TDHCA, Housing Texas and Covenant Neighborhoods of Houston.

I won’t go into all the details here. You can do a search in this blog for previous entries to find more background about the Texas Grow Homes project. The project is to build three or four model houses designed by architects in a statewide competition. The homes are intended to be models for rapidly fabricated, modular housing that can be erected quickly in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

We wanted to make the model homes available to the lowest income, most needy families who lost their homes to Hurricane Rita. It was in the process of working to qualify these families to receive government housing assistance funds we are using for the project that we began to encounter problems and came to appreciate the difficulties government agencies are encountering in administering hurricane disaster funds for housing rebuilding.

Prior to the hurricanes I never truly appreciated the large number of desperately poor Texans who actually own their own home. Some of these homeowners are poor because they have suffered a loss of income since they originally purchased their home. In other cases they have become disabled and can no longer work. A very large percentage are elderly people subsisting on nothing more than their social security income of less than $700 a month.

A fairly large number of the people we encountered had their home passed down to them from their parents or grandparents. In almost all of these cases the homes are old and desperately needed modernization even before the hurricanes hit. The damages caused by the hurricanes proved to be devastating for many of these households.

On the surface these seem like easy problems to solve. If you just give a family a new home then you would think they would be able to get back on with their lives.

But there are complicating factors. Many of the households we dealt with feared being provided to new home because they did not think they would be able to afford to pay the taxes and the insurance on a new home of increased value. A significant number of the families we worked with were in arrears on their taxes even prior to the hurricane. Very few of these households have homeowners insurance. (I’ve previously blogged on the unaffordability of homeowners insurance to lower income families on the Texas Gulf Coast).

Most of the families we saw had annual incomes of less than $10,000. Even with elderly and homeowner tax exemptions, and with no existing house payment, they still had serious problems just paying their taxes, not to mention the maintenance costs of their homes.

Then there is the problem of establishing their title to the home. The great majority of the families we interviewed to get one of our model houses did not have clear title to their property.

In most cases they lived in a home locally described as “heir property”. Their parents or grandparents died without leaving a will, or if they had a will the estate was never probated. Often there would be a large number of heirs scattered all across the country, each with a fractional interest in the home.

Under interpretations of the State of Texas housing agency concerning the use of CDBG funds, title to the property needs to be cleared before proceeding to spend any public funds to rebuild or repair the home. Clearing title is an incredibly complicated, time-consuming task. In many cases the other heirs are themselves impoverished. Convincing them to “sign away” their interest to the property is very difficult.

So how do we deal with these problems?

So far as the problem that people are too poor to be able to afford to own a home goes, I really don’t have a solution. Yet it is a problem that demands attention from policymakers. This is not the last time we are going to be confronted with a natural disaster and face the dilemma of how to aid low income homeowners in rebuilding.

With regards to the problem of establishing clear title, a bill passed Representative Craig Eiland (D-Galveston) this legislative session directs the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to proceed with undertaking repairs or reconstruction of homes even in the absence of clear title.This is not a perfect solution. It exposes the State to some liability should heirs come forward who are not income qualified to receive CDBG funds seeking to reclaim the property. In such a case the State might have to repay the federal government for the money spent on repairing or rebuilding the house. But it is a practical solution that will help to expedite the rebuilding.

We began the Texas Grow Home project with the idea of solving the challenge of the physical restoration of housing in the wake of natural disasters. In the course of the project we have once again been reminded that economic and legal challenges form the basis of the shelter property problem.

We worked through the problems of the families we are going to be providing homes to. We’ve learned a lot in the process. And we are relieved to be finally breaking ground. And we have developed some understanding of what is causing the unconscionable delays in government housing programs.